I HAVE long since understood the politics of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte as one that can be labeled at best as postmodern.
He defies neat categorization.
And he moves with so much unpredictability that there is no grand narrative that could arrest or immobilize him. One time he appears serious, at other times playful. He curses as if it is the moral thing to do, making you wonder whether there is a purpose to the insult. He feigns to be disorganized, perhaps to disarm.
Of course, his detractors have a field day labeling him an irrational mass murderer, an incoherent madman. Unfortunately, his ability to play with meanings, images and representations enable him to turn the tables around and paint his critics as woefully clueless.
Michel Foucault, the French social theorist who has significantly contributed to postmodern thought, avoided being fixed by pointing out that it is the burden of bureaucrats to name and label. For Foucault, naming and labelling amount to an exercise of power.
I see President Duterte as one who refuses to be categorically named and labeled. His politics is one slippery prey that is difficult to corner, and therefore equally difficult to confine.
One can make sense of President Duterte’s politics by using Jacques Derrida, another iconic figure in postmodern theory who introduced the methodology of deconstruction.
President Duterte’s politics require not only interpretation, but also deconstruction, precisely because his politics also deconstructs. For a long time, we have been enslaved by the great opposition between East and West, and we were fixed and labeled as America’s proxy in Asia. President Duterte effectively destabilized this dichotomy and our location within it, not just by reversing the duality of good America and bad China or Russia, but more importantly in destabilizing the assumptions about what makes one good and the other bad.
The power of deconstructive readings rests on the instability of fixing meanings. This is an idea that was taken by Derrida from Ferdinand de Saussure, who pointed out that the relationship between the signifier (the words) and the signified (the concepts or objects) are more arbitrary, that in the end the creation of social meaning rests on negotiations, and not on fixed positions. There are no absolute identities, and everything exists in historical flux.
It is here that to discourse is to resist, since discourse renders concept fluid.
We have been trying to escape the conceptual imprisonment brought about by our experience of colonization. Indigenous constructs tried to wean us from the methodological and epistemological fixations of our scholarships that looked towards the West as the fountain of theory. They also sought to extricate us from our fanatical worship of anything American that led us to think that the heart of the Filipino is in America, and it is the motto of Philippine Airlines precisely because it flies us there, even if delayed.
But it is the advent of a Rodrigo Duterte that provided a clear embodiment of deconstructive politics. What Sikolohiyang Pilipino and Pantayong Pananaw only defined in theory, Duterte’s politics made apparent in our everyday life.
The elitist notion of morality and virtue, which is basically a shadow of the Western Victorian ethic, has been dislocated by Duterte’s cursing that resonates with the people. The hypocrisy of cultured conduct was taunted by his misogyny that is accepted by many, to the consternation of the moralistic elites.
He defied elite politics by his victory, and he is defying Western hegemony with his deconstruction of politics in the way he practices his diplomacy.
President Duterte’s diplomatic worldview has become a clear manifestation of what we in political science call a social constructivist understanding of international relations. While realists and liberals focus on self-interest of states as the lynchpin for the conduct of nations in the international arena, social constructivists aim to explore the social constructedness of interests, and that these are not objectively defined or represented. Hence, relationship between countries is defined less overtly by acts of leaders in the formal domain of diplomacy, but is in fact an intersubjective domain where human agents construct meanings. Ideas then are given equal prominence. Diplomacy becomes a theater where language games proliferate.
To those who look at interest-driven overt diplomacy, President Duterte is playing with fire when he taunts EU, curses the US, and dismisses the UN.
But when one rests with a social constructivist understanding of international relations, one can take comfort with the thought that all of these are language games, and that our President is creating a scene to destabilize an order that has long put us in diplomatic straitjackets.
And when he made public the threat of war by China, it is a symbolic disruption of what has been considered as a diplomatic confinement. He broke the silence to create a discursive space where talking about the threat can confine China. And in fact, it just did when the latter did not react.
In fact, it is the noisy traditional politicians at home who demand that we protest.
In the end, Duterte has already played his card. War has been effectively turned into material for language games in social media. As Foucault has suggested, the best way to confine and control an idea is to talk about it.
And the President understood this.